Keeping a check

Keeping a check

troubled

Keeping a check

Being native to Uttara Kannada district, I have grown up amidst thick evergreen forests. These forests are a home to many lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus). These primates often come close to our gardens to eat jackfruit and uppage (Garcinia gummi-gutta), but they never harm our crops. Unlike rodent species, the macaques never destroy the seeds.

Instead, they help in dispersing them. I don’t know if the macaque population has increased or decreased, but I have seen the degradation of forests, which has led to the degradation of the habitats of these monkeys,” says Torme Prakash, a local villager.

Vital primates

Lion-tailed macaques are a unique species inhabiting the Western Ghats of South
India. The region is a habitat to many rare life forms, some of which are unique to the area and not found anywhere else in the world. These macaques are considered as a ‘flagship species’ of the Western Ghats. Their uniqueness lies in their natural history and specialisation. They are very slow breeders with long inter-birth gaps showing low reproductive turnovers. They are very selective in feeding and are restricted to a few pockets of evergreen forests. These macaques primarily eat indigenous fruits, leaves, buds, insects and small vertebrates. They have a specialised occupation as seed
dispersers in the forest ecology and aid in maintaining the diversity and composition of forest plants. Hence, they are also called as the ‘farmers of forests’.

Presently, these primates face a threat from human activities. Already, many of their habitats are either fragmented or degraded, especially in the northern extremity. They were reported much above their present range in Aghanashini forests, which holds one of the largest populations (more than 600 estimated individuals).

But even these forests are showing a reduction in the macaque habitats. The evergreen forest conversion is close to about 2% annually, which is a very striking and significant driver for habitat fragmentation. The major triggers for habitat loss are the high dependence of large human population on the forests and the so-called  developmental activities. The construction of roads to connect houses situated inside the forests by uprooting of many old and mature trees has contributed to this habitat loss. Moreover, providing electricity to remote homes in this area has also led to  the fragmentation of forest canopies. Many of the animals that use trees as a habitat or for movement face the risk of getting electrocuted due to the presence of bare electric lines. Thankfully, the
Forest Department declared this patch of forest as a conservation reserve in the year 2011, which is expected to have positive impacts on the conservation of lion-tailed macaques.

But the problems of Aghanashini Valley aren’t restricted to the lion-tailed macaques alone. The web of issues far exceeds them, affecting the stakeholders of the area like local people, Forest Department, panchayats, electricity companies and local organisations such as village forest committees (VFC), self-help groups. For instance, local people, who are largely agriculturists, are highly dependent on forests for resources. This adds a lot more burden on nature. Also, the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) collectors, who are known for using extraordinarily large quantities of firewood, face problems in harvesting, processing and marketing their produce.

While the Forest Department has many schemes for afforestation, they are largely  monoculture in nature and mostly involve fast-growing exotic species. The local agencies, in a bid to address development and poverty issues, blindly implement government schemes without exploring their adaptability to the area. The VFCs sparsely hold powers in forest management for many reasons. Thus, there is an urgent need to bring together all the stakeholders on a single platform to address the problems associated with
effective forest management.
A bid to solve them all

As an effort to address these issues, researchers from the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, along with the team of Sirsi-based LIFE Trust, have initiated a project in association with the Conservation Leadership Programme. The project mainly focuses on mitigation of forest fragmentation in relation to the agricultural activities and development. The team is exploring different agricultural methods and strategies that can decrease the dependence on forest, making it more sustainable. It is one of the critical issues in the area that needs to be dealt with immediate effect. If farming activities become self-sustainable, a considerable amount of pressure on the forests will be reduced.

The solutions to the problems related to forest fragmentation in Aghanashini forests are simple and extremely effective if implemented. Firstly, the agriculturists need to minimise or halt external inputs to their farmlands. This may be achieved jointly by promoting growth of certain shrubs between betel nut trees, which help in water retention and provide organic  manure. A few farmers construct checkbunds to the streams near their farmlands and collect biomass from there. This method needs to be promoted as it reduces their dependence on collection of leaf-litter and thus avoids soil erosion in the forests.

The panchayats and the Forest Department should come up with ways to regulate or even stop construction of new single-unit houses and encourage colony housing. This not only reduces forest loss, but also avoids the need for other developmental elements like roads and electricity. There have been reports of electrocution of lion-tailed macaques on these new electric lines because of an apparent break in the forest canopy.

Afforestation schemes by the Forest Department needs to radically shift from monoculture plantations to forest restoration using important species for both monkeys and people. The issues related to joint forest management may be resolved by enhancing transparency in VFCs. Lastly, firewood consumption for processing uppage needs to be reduced using alternative methods.  

In the future, the team plans to advocate domestication of important NTFP and streamlining their marketing through decentralised multi-stakeholder bodies. In the longer run, there is a need to restore the once timber-logged forest into a near-natural forest to conserve some of the rarest flora and fauna of the area.

As Torme Prakash says, “A pragmatic approach involving strong principles of science, activism and peoples’ empowerment is highly necessary to achieve a long-lasting conservation of forests and the primates.”

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